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A Virtual Flight Experience With Three Top RC Simulators
Featured in the May 2013 issue of Model Aviation magazine
by Jay Smith


An important consideration when contemplating purchasing a flight simulator is determining if it will run on your PC or MAC. With a PC, things to check are the operating system, processor speed, amount of system memory, hard drive space, and the video card. The system requirements for each simulator reviewed can be found in the system requirements sidebar.

I built the PC used to test each simulator, allowing me the opportunity to select each system component. I chose Windows 8 as the operating system to test the RC flight simulators because any new PC will come with Windows 8 preinstalled.

The simulators I tested had no problem running in Windows 8, and each came supplied with its own USB transmitter.

A Tool or a Toy

I have utilized a flight simulator since getting back into flying slightly more than 10 years ago. At first it was to get the link between my fingers and my brain working again after a long absence from RC flight. Then I used it to build my skills and perfect maneuvers that could be attempted with the safety a simulator provides, before transitioning those skills into actual flight.

The first time I attempted maneuvers such as knife-edge, inverted flight, four-point rolls, and hovering was in the digital world. It was my goal to advance my skills in aerobatic flight without putting my air force—or my wallet—at risk. RC flight simulators have saved me more money and time than what I have invested in them, because crashing in a virtual world costs nothing.

I have also learned that like anything in life, you get out of it what you put into it. Purposeful flight on a simulator will benefit anyone looking to build his or her skills; however, bad habits can easily be learned on the simulator.

Muscle memory is a type of movement established by frequent repetition. Once learned, muscle memory becomes an unconscious process similar to walking, riding a bike, or swimming. After you have learned the skills, your body can complete these tasks with little or no additional thought. This is why proper execution during repetition is important. Muscle memory can work against you if you consistently practice something incorrectly.

Think about when you were first learning to fly RC and had to remind yourself when flying an aircraft toward you that your aileron and rudder work in reverse compared to when flying away. At first, most struggle with this concept, but before long it becomes second nature.

Dave Scott, who runs the 1st U.S. R/C Flight School, stresses to his students that it is important to have a plan or goal to accomplish when sitting down at the simulator. He often recommends those who have his training manuals to study them thoroughly, and then complete the maneuvers on a simulator before actual flight.

Ultimately, it is up to you how you choose to utilize the flight simulator and whether you consider it as a learning tool or simply a game. In either case, an RC flight simulator will provide virtual pilots the opportunity to fly a vast number of aircraft in a broad range of locations from the comfort of your favorite chair.

Recommendations

Aerofly5, Phoenix 4, and RealFlight 6.5 all provide an immersive experience, include a multiplayer component, and allow models to be flown from land or water. It would be nearly impossible to recommend one over the others without knowing which features are most important to the perspective buyer.

The goal of this article is to provide you an overview of each, point out some of the highlights and issues I encountered, share some screen shots, and let you conclude which one best meets your needs.


Aerofly5

Aerofly5 hails from Germany and is the latest release in a line of popular RC flight simulators, with four years of development under its belt. It provides stunning graphics thanks to its photo sceneries and multi-panoramic sceneries. It also provides the flexibility running on a PC or Apple Mac OS X.

Installation was quick, and 12 minutes later it was time to experience what this popular simulator has to offer. First up was transmitter calibration, which is required the first time the program is launched.

The easy setup walks you through the process and provides the option to assign keys on your keyboard or transmitter to the most frequently used model functions. If you don’t like the default settings, change them by clicking a function’s horizontal bar and moving the desired slider when prompted, or pressing the desired key or knob on the joystick.





Wanting to experience aerofly’s visuals at their maximum, I set the graphics options to the highest settings. After I picked my aircraft and flying site, I noticed an issue with the graphics. My airplane had a bright, pixelated look. Nothing else in the scenery was affected, and changing to a different aircraft didn’t fix the issue. With a little trial and error in the graphics settings, I determined it was the shader that was causing the issue. Setting it to low was the only way to resolve the problem.

I contacted the IKARUS support team and supplied the company with a couple of screen shots and details about the shader settings. A day later, I was sent an update that resolved the issue—very impressive support!

Flying sites are referred to as “scenery” in aerofly5, and several exciting locations such as Hodges Hobbies (Southeast Electric Flight Festival), Triple Tree (Joe Nall), Superstition Airpark (Arizona Electric Festival), Torrey Pines, and the AMA Field are included. Aerofly’s flying sites even provide the ability to fly from different locations. The AMA Field allows flying from Sites 1, 3, and 4, and all of the field photos are beautiful!

In 4-D landscapes, additional positions are possible. You can cycle through the available options using the keys “V” and “B.” After you decide from which location to fly, press the space bar to restart the model from this position.

The 4-D landscapes also provide extra details, including animated windsocks and trees, programmable weather conditions and times of the day, animated water surfaces, and configurable clouds.

Aerofly5 offers four camera modes (fixed, follow, model, and cockpit) and they can be activated using the F5 to F8 keys, or optionally via the view menu. In all camera modes, you can minimize and maximize the field of vision of the camera using the keys “A” and “Y.” Key “A” minimizes your field of vision, making the model easier to see. The “Y” key enlarges your field of vision so that you can see more of the landscape.

After you’ve experienced several of the exciting venues and flown from land and water, it’s time to try some of the other entertaining options. Aerofly provides a Torque Trainer and Heli Hover Trainer that allow the level of control to be adjusted so you don’t have to take on all of the controls at once.

On the lighter side, the spot landing contest and balloon pop are two of several distractions from standard flight. The spot landing contest challenges you to land your selected aircraft at the center of the runway and provides points for each landing during a 90-second period. The balloon contest provides the opportunity to pop balloons with your model, and bank points throughout the 3-minute contest.

Aerofly also supports multiplayer mode with the ability to fly simultaneously with up to 16 pilots on different PCs on a network or the Internet. Similar to other RC simulators, you have the option to join or host a session. I generally found few pilots online when I’ve been on the simulator.

Aerofly5 provides virtual pilots with beautiful, immersive backdrops at some of the top RC destinations that can be manipulated in ways not available with other RC flight simulators. A total of 152 aircraft and 47 flying sites are at your disposal, as well as free downloads of user-created models and sceneries.


Phoenix R/C Pro Simulator V4.0

Phoenix 4 is currently the only RC flight simulator that includes an actual transmitter, the Spektrum DX5e, which can also be used to fly a real RC model. This is a great idea, not only for the beginner, but also for pilots who already own a transmitter because it can be used as a spare radio or a buddy box.

It took slightly more than 30 minutes to download and install the Phoenix’s 28 updates, which include additional models and flying sites. The recently updated Phoenix 4 has a whopping 192 aircraft and 32 flying sites, and each time the program is launched it checks for updates and provides the option to download official and unofficial aircraft for free.





Navigation is easy thanks to the menu system that runs across the top of the screen. A handy sort feature is available when choosing a model that includes default, class, power, manufacturer, and difficulty.

Flying sites include 2-D panoramic, which are high-resolution, photo-realistic backgrounds, and 3-D InfinityScape, a 3-D landscape generator that lets you fly beyond the horizon over beautiful, ever-changing terrain that you create and control. The cockpit and follow camera views are only available with the 3-D InfinityScape landscapes.

Competition modes give you a chance to try out your new skills in a fun and challenging manner. The available modes include bomb drop, balloon pop, streamer cutting, laser Combat, thermal gliding, precise autorotation, and spot landing.

I found the bomb drop to be an entertaining way to work on hovering various aerobatic aircraft. In this mode you fly around—or in my case hover around—the selected field trying to drop bombs on the targets on the ground during a time limit. Bombs are triggered using the gear switch. Gravity and velocity need to be taken into account when trying to hit targets.

Training encompasses hovering, autorotation, torque, and landing. The tutorial video browser is a library of useful recordings made by established, expert pilots, which covers a wide range of topics from basic controls to complex maneuvers and tricks. Each video is accompanied by a commentary voiceover that explains what is happening on-screen and gives useful advice and tips.

An on-screen transmitter is displayed in the lower left corner of the screen, allowing viewers to follow the stick movements while the maneuvers are demonstrated.

Tutorial videos cover the basics, beginning aerobatics, and advanced aerobatics for airplanes and helicopters.

Multiplayer is supported in Phoenix 4, which includes an online networking and matchmaking system called Phoenix Online, which lets you find other Phoenix pilots and fly with them via the Internet.

You can join or host a session for casual flying at any of the flying sites, and many of the competition modes can be flown online against other pilots. I found flying with others to be enjoyable and the element of sharing the virtual airspace is much like flying at your local field.

Hovering my Edge 540 in front of Stonehenge, with helicopters flipping around my aircraft, is likely something I’ll never experience in real life! Multiplayer is fun, and I was able to find people online throughout the day.

One thing I changed in Phoenix 4 was preventing an automatic reset every time I had a crash or component breakage. This removed the challenge of trying to pilot the aircraft with the idiosyncrasies that would develop. In the settings you have the option to change when the program resets your model from a time delay to no auto-reset.

Phoenix 4 provides several options to fine-tune and customize your experience. The inclusion of a fully functional transmitter and free downloads of aircraft and flying sites make it a good value. Its graphics deliver beautiful photo backdrops with only an occasion graphic anomaly. It is complemented by the realistic sounds recorded from actual model engines.


RealFlight 6.5

RealFlight began catering its popular simulator toward aircraft and helicopter pilots upon the release of version 6, with the option of either the former or latter Megapack. RealFlight 6.5 comes preinstalled with 131 airplane and heli models.

The Airplane Megapack adds an additional 36 airplanes, and the Helicopter Megapack provides 51 helicopters. The other difference between the versions is that the throttle stick of the included InterLink Elite controller has detented positions on the airplane version. The helicopter version has no throttle detents, similar to most heli transmitters.





If you are looking for even more models, Knife Edge Software, the company behind RealFlight, maintains swap pages on its website that allow users to upload and download additional aircraft and flying sites that have been created by users specifically for version 6.5. At the time of this writing, the site provided an additional 63 aircraft and 74 flying sites.

Updates will occasionally provide additional free models from RealFlight. The most recent update included the Heli-Max 1SQ.

Installation was quick and easy. The setup files are on a single DVD, and took approximately 10 minutes. The Megapack is on a second DVD and was installed later. Once installed and registered, the program allows access to updates.

Each time the program is launched via the RealFlight 6.5 launcher, it automatically checks for updates and displays the current version and serial numbers of the program and InterLink controller.

RealFlight allows pilots to utilize either the controller or the on-screen menus to select models and flying sites, and view and change game settings. I set all of the graphic settings on my new computer to the highest settings and was rewarded with attractive scenery.

The simulator excels in flight physics, especially in allowing for flight failures and in-flight damage to aircraft while still being able to pilot the model with all of the idiosyncrasies the changes have made.

When you are ready to “start over,” the Interlink Elite controller has two useful options that are controlled via the red reset button. Pressing the button resets the model from its starting location, and holding the button down will rewind the simulator until the button is released. This lets you go back to the specific point where you want to start over, rather than start with a new flight.

This can be useful when trying to perfect a maneuver, but keep in mind that you have to emulate the control positions after you halt the rewind.

There are several training aids in RealFlight. For airplanes, there is a takeoff trainer, landing trainer, airplane hover trainer, and virtual flight instruction. Those for helicopter pilots include hover trainer, autorotation trainer, orientation trainer, and virtual flight instruction.

The virtual instructor utilizes some of the top names in RC including Frank Noll, Jason Noll, Jim Bourke, MA columnist John Glezellis, Brian Bremen, Pete Niotis, and Todd Bennett, who provide voice instruction while demonstrating each maneuver.

Multiplayer is a fun option, especially if you want a break from focused flying. It provides the option to host or join an online session. The multiplayer menu allows you access to a variety of multiplayer-related features, functions, and options.

Several alternatives include Fun Fly, Combat, Streamer Cut, DeadRinger, and Paintball. My favorite is Combat and I have spent countless hours engaged in dogfights piloting the World War I Sopwith Pup, L-39 jet, and World War II P-51 Mustang—all of which are armed with machine guns and rockets.

Flying Combat requires smooth input on the sticks to keep up with the movements of your flying target. Using the rudder will also help you make tighter turns or spray your opponent’s aircraft with machine gunfire from wingtip to wingtip.

Knife Edge Software has produced several versions of RealFlight throughout the years, and is always looking to improve the pilot’s experience with innovations, such as the rewind option, with each new release. The simulator provides a good balance of options for pilots looking for training or flying fun.

Video Highlights


Conclusion

Today’s RC flight simulator provides the virtual pilot access to more aircraft, flying sites, and events than most of us will ever experience. They deliver stunning graphics and provide entrance to locations that are always open, with aircraft that can be repaired with the touch of a button.

Simulators allow us to connect with others around the globe, fly together, and engage in friendly competitions. They can help us build confidence in flying more advanced models and remove the hesitation when trying to perfect new maneuvers.

If you have decided to invest in an RC flight simulator, use this article as a guide. Don’t hesitate to ask others their opinions, look for comments on RC forums, and visit each company’s website. This will ensure you get the most out of the investment that will help you continue to learn and maintain your flying skills.


—Jay Smith
jays@modelaircraft.org




MANUFACTURER/DISTRIBUTOR:

Ikarus USA
(877) 550-2376
www.aerofly.com
www.ikarus-usa.us

Phoenix R/C Pro Simulator V4.0
(800) 338-4639
www.phoenix-sim.com
www.horizonhobby.com

RealFlight 6.5
(800) 637-7660
www.realflight.com
www.knifeedge.com

SOURCES:

Aerofly free downloads
www.ipacs.de/forum/forumdisplay.php/18-Free-Downloads

Knife Edge swap pages
www.knifeedge.com/forums/downloads.php

P-40 Flared Exhaust
Rob Pike’s RC Final Touch
www.rcfinaltouch.com

1st U.S. R/C Flight School
www.rcflightschool.com








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12 comments

When will someone write a true flight simulator review and compare what really matters in a sim - flight physics. Anyone can get a list of features and a sense of graphics quality from the manufacturer's website, but a review will only have value if it describes how close the software comes to reproducing a real-life model in flight, and how the software performs on the average home PC.

Agreed. Physics and damage modeling are most important, followed by graphic quality. The written article conveys very little useful information.

I am a novice (beginner). It seems like these reviews are just a re-hash of the manufacturer's sales pitches. What I need is an accurate review of the plusses and minuses of the various simulators, so that I can get an accurate comparison of the sims available, not a collection of the hype by the manufacturers.

simulator review. Mainly a re-hash of the manufacturers PR. It is not a comparative eview at all. I am very disappointed.

I kinda wish the article could go into more detail, the video definitely helped show off some of the different features.

Not one of these sim reviews shows any Mac compatibility. I could understand this ten years ago..but now. Do RC enthusiasts only use Windows?
Not much help to this newbie!

try heli-x , that and RC helicopter simulator are the only two native apps i've found. There is Aerofly available but it's been modified with 'wine' so its not a truly native app. Heli-x is the most stable of the two. but cant find add ons on the net. Bummed with the standard stuff.

Phoenix can be used on a Mac I did just this on my IMAC.
You must partition your drive via bootcamp and install the Windows operating system on the partitioned part of your drive. Make sure to get a good Virus protection also to install on that partitioned drive as well.

Agreed 100% with the comments regarding reviewing the physics. I'd love to know how close these 'feel' to the real-life models. Also, what about the free simulators? The graphics won't be there, but I would not be as quick to write off the physics. I see many used flight sims for sale on forum classifieds. It adds to my worry that this is something one would use at first but would soon end up on the shelf.

Lol. Too many people whining that the author didn't give "enough" info. In other words, "tell them which one to buy." I read the article a few months back and then again recently. Then I chose RealFlight 7. So far I'm very happy. Admittedly, I'm curious about AeroFly. However, I'm quite happy with RF7 so far.

I echo comments above. And if using this sim as a means of training on your own plane, there should be a way to input its characteristics. Regardless of how many planes included, it is almost a given that your plane is not included in the sim list. Someone inferred that Real flight may of had such a capability in a post on one of the reviews. I would like to know if this is really a possibility and how it is done.

HI: I JUST INSTALLED THE REALFLIGHT BASIC SIMULATOR PROGRAM INTO MY COMPUTER AFTER GETTING AN UPGRADED VIDEO CARD. GUESS WHAT. ALL OF THE FLIGHT CONTROLS ARE NOT ADJUSTABLE FROM ALL OF MY SEARCHES SO FAR. THE STEERING, THROTTLE, ETC ARE WAY TO MUCH, AND THEN THE NEXSTAR MODEL DISAPPEARS AFTER LIFT OFF. I SOLOED IN 1996, AND NONE OF MY CONSTRUCTED MODELS FLEW SO OUT OF CONTROL. ABOUT THE ONLY THING I CAN DO IS TO JUST LIFT OFF, AND THEN SHUT OFF THE POWER. BY THEN, THE MODEL HAS DISAPPEARED WHEN TRYING TO LAND AGAIN. ANY ONE HAVE SOME INPUT AS TO WHICH SIM HAS THE ABILITY FOR ME TO SET ALL OF THE CONTROLS TO MY REQUIREMENTS?

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